Slept And Did Not Sleep
Simon Jay Catling
, December 21st, 2012 06:56
What got a lot of people's goat about Alt-J taking the Mercury Prize wasn't necessarily that their music was particularly bad, it was more that the justification given for their victory didn't really reconcile with where they actually sit as a band. Compared by many to Radiohead's in the run-up to the gong, to a lot of ears they didn't sound anything like a set of minds impassioned by the voyage of discovery. They just sounded like they had a bit of a cold.
It's perhaps Radiohead's on going commercial success that's to blame for the music industry's constant need to find bands that can be marketed as both aesthetically attractive and creatively expansive. Certainly if you can find a band whose choruses will curry favour with the masses and whose record collection will hoodwink the tastemakers, then you've hit upon a winning formula. That said there is undoubtedly a real skill in being able to balance populist music tendencies with a desire to reach towards the more esoteric margins. At the top level in the UK you can look to The Horrors, Wild Beasts and Foals as those who largely successfully manage to juggle the two, but while Alt-J's ability to do this has been greatly exaggerated by those around them, on Mercury night it was telling that few alternatives were being posited by those harrumphing.
Liverpool-based four-piece Ninetails potentially are though. Visually they look the part; they've cheekbones you could measure with a spirit level, soul-piercing crystalline stares and jeans you could use as slingshots. But far more importantly Slept And Did Not Sleep exhibits a wandering will to reach out to the leftfield ether without ever quite leaving behind the sense that, should the fancy take them, they could produce a stone cold brain lodger oozing both intelligence and pop nous.
Though Slept And Did Not Sleep certainly suggests potential of that, it never quite occurs here. It's the band's second EP after last year's Ghost Ride The Whip, which served notice of their melodic capabilities, giving as it did a gruffly Northern take on the Oxford math-rock scene circa five years ago. Yet this one goes completely the other way and sees them channelling those traits through a more refracted prism. Bits of vocal and melody can only glint among deep wells of electronic sighs and drones; they come most prominently to the fore at the beginning of 'Body Clock' - which sounds a little like Everything Everything during a ketamine binge - and the admittedly sometimes over-fussy 'Rawdon Fever' and its free-form groove. Largely, though, they are but dispatches of sound enveloped in a sleepily spectral atmosphere. The opening motif of 'Maybe We' sounds like it's having to be manually wound up in order to gain the strength to start, only to collapse shortly afterwards and disappear among gently pulsing and probing bass frequencies. 'Boxed In' meanwhile is eight minutes of distorted ambience, nary a defined edge to be found as it drifts organically in a manner at odds with its title.
Thematically this is strong, evoking the after-dark world of half-sleep, of mind-captured images and restlessness suggested by the EP's title; it taps into western society's technological dependence, in which forever left-on mobiles, laptops and devices interrupt our slumber, electronic punctuations breaking through the music as our devices cut through our stupor. Taken as a whole it suggests a band still playing around in their workshop, though edging closer towards assembling something that will eventually impact as a complete whole. They're getting close here: the closing 'Mama Aniseed' is an emotionally strong, cascading ballad that has real conviction to it, more a hugely considered piece and embellished by the dexterity of sounds explored over the EP's duration. Idiocracy: a middling film from 2006 starring Luke Wilson that based itself on a concept of human intelligence dumbing down over generations. Sometimes in 2012 it's felt like that upon discovering the beigest of acts hailed as progressive-thinking saviours. Thankfully, on Slept And Did Not Sleep Ninetails suggest that a cerebrally bright future remains a possibility.